A Can of Beans

The Story of Sunset Boulevard

by Patrick Lucanio

     Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is considered one of the great American films primarily for its excellent storytelling.  Wilder and producer Charles Brackett were both consummate screen writers who assumed the roles of director and producer, respectively, in order to assure that their written work was properly realized on the screen.  In fact, even after their breakup following Sunset Boulevard, any examination of their independent screenplays reveals detail to not just story and characterization but ways by which story and characterization were to be told.  Actors and technicians frequently expressed amazement at how detailed the scripts were and, with Wilder in particular just how closely Wilder followed the script’s directions—his own directions.  Tony Curtis, star of Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959), once said that in a Wilder film the script did the directing.

     As good storytelling, Sunset Boulevard has received praise for its unity of effect since its first release in 1950.  Mainstream critics lauded the film, and its reputation only grew over the years to the point that the National Film Registry, established by the Library of Congress in 1988, included Sunset Boulevard (along with three other Billy Wilder films) in its list of 100 most valued films of the century.  Reasons vary but all agree that Sunset Boulevard resonates with many qualities as both a film and a story, and chief among these qualities is the narrative’s use of irony to critically assess the values of its primary characters.  Wilder, as he had done with his earlier films, keenly sets two people against each other—Norma and Joe—with a third—Max—thrown in as a somewhat impersonal observer although by the end of the narrative we discover that Max has had much more influence on Norma’s life that he ever admitted to.  The interplay among the trio drives the chronicle of a desperate has-been movie star trying to reclaim her earlier glory by appearing in her own production of a biblical epic called Salome within a milieu of the eponymous Hollywood, an actual location but one that epitomizes the excesses of affluence, glamor, power and resulting corruption.

     The film’s origins lie with Charles Brackett.  He wanted to produce a comedy about Hollywood and its perverse occupants.  There was nothing new in the concept; Hollywood had produced films about itself beginning in the silent era with James Cruze’s Merton of the Movies (1924) and following through in talkies with such films as William Wellman’s A Star is Born (1937) and Preston Sturges’ zany Sullivan’s Travels (1942).  In most of these films the narrative follows a young performer striving for fame and fortune in Hollywood with success guaranteed through the typical Hollywood ending.  Bracket’s idea, however, was to turn such a plot on its head.  His idea was to follow the plight of an aging silent movie star trying to regain the limelight; she still possessed a modicum of fame and fortune but longed for the days of notoriety.  Following a series of comedic setbacks she would eventually triumph to become a star reborn over her skeptical adversaries, namely the studio bosses who were ever seeking youth and vitality.

     Wilder liked the idea but at this stage of their partnership Wilder had grown more cynical.  This is to say that, although Wilder had always had a sarcastic bite to his comedy, his postwar European experiences, as one historian claimed, had left him with an abject pessimism about humanity.  In addition to personal problems—going through a divorce only to have his mistress ditch him as well—Wilder balked at the lighter tone of Brackett’s narrative and coerced Brackett into cowriting a dark narrative about a place that feeds on people.  Hollywood was the perfect place, or, as Wilder once explained, an amoral thing that devours its own.  Wilder is said to have run roughshod over Brackett, turning Brackett’s comedy into a tragedy filled with biting comedic elements against Brackett’s protestations; moreover, as the project developed and took aim at Hollywood itself they titled the project A Can of Beans and submitted contrived reports about a raucous comedy similar to Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels in order to keep Paramount officials oblivious to the actual subject matter.  Wilder later stated that he was fearful that had the industry and trade press known the subject matter there would have been pressure applied to Paramount to terminate the project.

     It is at this point that a third member of the writing team appeared.  Wilder and Brackett often played bridge in their office during moments of writers’ block.  One member who frequented the bridge club was a young Time-Life reporter and movie critic named Donald McGill Marshman, Jr., who often signed his work, D. M. Marshman, Jr.  During one card game Wilder and Brackett confided in Marshman that they were getting nowhere fast in the development of their story about Hollywood.  Marshman offered his idea, which was, as Brackett later explained, to have a relationship between the silent movie star and a young man; in other words, Marshman added the idea of a gigolo sharing the bed of an aging star who was living in the past, refusing to believe her days as a star were gone, and holing up in, as Marshman described it, one of those run-down immense mansions along the “strip.”  The team then ran with the idea that the young man was a screenwriter—like themselves—and a nice guy to boot from the Middle West and one who wasn’t quite making the grade.  For his suggestion, or perhaps inspiration, Marshman was granted co-screenplay credit.

     History shows at this point that Wilder took command of the project to the dismay of Brackett.  Wilder and Brackett fought incessantly over characterization and plotting—Brackett being the more genteel of the two—with Wilder demanding more and more dark elements whereas Brackett fought to save the comedic aspects.  Reportedly, Brackett became so incensed at times that he literally threw objects at Wilder.  The discord escalated and eventually led to a not-so-amicable dissolution of one of Hollywood’s most successful and certainly most creative teams in its history.  According to Wilder, he merely informed Brackett before completing Sunset Boulevard that he thought it best that they go their separate ways.  Brackett, on the other hand, despite their differences and wrangling, maintained that he never saw the breakup coming and he remained mystified by Wilder’s exit.  In the years that followed, with Brackett moving to Twentieth Century-Fox where he became a successful writer and producer, and Wilder (with three Oscars to his name) forming his own company and collaborating throughout the 1960s with I. A. L. Diamond, neither mentioned the other despite their celebrated and award-winning partnership.  Indeed, it was said that a bitter Wilder even shunned those who worked with Brackett following the split but, yet, when Brackett was unceremoniously sacked by Twentieth Century-Fox after the Cleopatra (1963) fiasco Wilder came to Brackett’s defense and severely censured Fox for scapegoating “his friend.”

     What started as a film comedy, then, eventually reached theaters as film noir, that equivocal descriptor used for films that depict shadowy figures walking down isolated rain-slicked streets at midnight.  Usually used to describe dark, hard-boiled detective stories in the literary tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, film noir remains oblique because few critics can agree on exactly what constitutes film noir; some critics vehemently argue that film noir is a genre whereas others just as fervently argue that film noir is not a genre per se but a noticeable and characteristic style distinguished by sharp contrasting chiaroscuro lighting, obtuse angles, and darkness.  But all agree, thanks to the French critics who first coined the phrase, that film noir was a post-war movie phenomenon that reflected the fundamental social changes that faced postwar Americans, chiefly the transformation of gender roles.  In this regard, the films are evidenced by anxiety and chiefly expressed through pessimism, isolationism, and outright existentialism with a single dominant figure—the independent and assertive woman, or, as depicted in the films, the devouring femme fatale.

     Many film historians claim that Sunset Boulevard is the culmination of this post-war film cycle that began, ironically enough, with Wilder’s own Double Indemnity (1945).  But defining Sunset Boulevard as film noir can be problematic.  Using Double Indemnity as foundation for film noir one is hard pressed to find similarities between Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity.  Indeed, Sunset Boulevard lacks the existential temper, the rain-slicked midnight streets, the grungy neighborhoods, the sharp chiaroscuro lighting with characters darkened by course shadows, the keen detective, and the sultry femme fatale whose inexplicable hold leads to the moribund loner’s destruction.  

     Well, perhaps; exact similarities of film noir are left wanting, or, rather, blatant articulation of such elements is left wanting in Sunset Boulevard.  The rain-slicked streets, keen private eye, and dingy skid row midnight flophouses are missing, but Wilder cleverly invokes such elements in more subtle and ironic ways.  Indeed, what is so appealing is that Wilder emphasizes light and dark contrasts.  He does this at the very beginning when the conventional and easily recognizable Paramount Pictures trademark—mountain peak semi-circled by stars—is superimposed over a darkened image of a phrase, Sunset Boulevard.  The trademark then gives way to a sharpened image of the title which is now recognizable as the street name Sunset Boulevard stamped on the side of a curb.  Ironically, then, one of the most famous of all movie trademarks fades into nothing and is replaced by one of the most famous streets in all the world—a street that flows from downtown Los Angeles all the way to the coast that is so identified with the glitterati—but marked by a mundane identifier, that of simple stenciling on a street-side curb.  And as to emphasize the irony as well as the decadence that will follow, we note that the title/street name is really a gutter adjacent to common street refuse.

      This is Sunset Boulevard with a twist.  What we know about it—the home of the “stars”—is not precisely what it is; behind the glitter is a darkness as grungy as the flophouses of skid row tenements.  Within this world Wilder introduces his protagonist, a struggling screenwriter with the commonplace name of Joe, Joe Gillis (William Holden)—yeah, an ordinary Joe.  In true film noir fashion—and Wilder practice —Joe takes us into his confidence by narrating his story and to further the noir temper Joe commences a murder mystery.  He says, “twenty minutes ago a murder was committed on Sunset Boulevard . . . the victim’s body is still floating in the swimming pool . . . nobody important, really, just a movie writer with a couple of B-pictures to his credit.”  Joe adds that the victim was a “poor dope [who] always wanted a swimming pool; well, he got the pool only the price turned out to be a little high.”  Then, again in noir fashion, our story proper is told in flashback—back to “six months [where] it begins,” Joes tells us, adding that “things had been tough; I hadn’t sold a story in months.”  The ultimate irony is established.  Our tale is being told by a dead man.  Interestingly, Joe tells us his story because he wants the truth to be told, not what the press will write, which is foreshadowing Wilder’s next film, Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), a film that would hit journalism in the gut the way Sunset Boulevard hit the movie industry in the gut.

     As the story proper begins we first find Joe within his own modest apartment, and then follow him along the swankiest boulevard in Hollywood to the magical Hollywood studio of Paramount Pictures.  It can be said that Sunset Boulevard and Paramount Pictures are playing themselves in the film just as Hedda Hopper, H. B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson, Buster Keaton, Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, and Cecil B. DeMille play themselves in a film that is as self-reflexive as any documentary about the movie industry.  In fact, at the time of Sunset Boulevard several documentary films were celebrating the so-called golden age of silent films, some of which featured Gloria Swanson in her prime (cf., Down Memory Lane [1949]).  Indeed, in a particularly contemporary and rather daring conceit Wilder drops names, citing, for example, that the baseball story he pitches to producer Sheldrake would be perfect for Paramount players Alan Ladd and second banana William Demarest, names that audiences would easily recognize.  Obviously, such references add to Wilder’s credibility.

     As we have already noted, Joe’s narration is sullen and dark, and as such it is the tone of the typical film noir protagonist.  He’s down on his luck, he’s in desperate straits, he’s in one of those “can’t-win-for-losin’” quandaries, and so he compromises principles in order to escape his condition.  He tells a half-truth to the repo men so he can pitch an idea to a producer friend who, he says, likes him and owes him a favor.  So Joe drives to the Paramount lot where he pitches an idea for a potboiler to producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark in the film and William Conrad in the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation).  But Sheldrake is not interested, especially after his reader, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olsen in film and Nancy Gates on radio), reports that there have been too many baseball movies and, as Schaefer notes to Joe’s chagrin, the story is just too clichéd and dull.  Frantic Joe takes off in his car and is spotted by the repo men who give chase.  Here, in typical noir fashion, Fate intervenes; indeed, a blowout forces Joe to maneuver his car into the driveway where he secrets the car inside the garage of a withered mansion.  He avoids the repo men but finds himself stranded in a strange world indeed.  It is a mansion all right but as decrepit as a movie-made haunted house.  What should be a sign of opulent prestige is now more a symbol of decay, of “what had been but is no more.”  The most visual of such signs is the swimming pool, which is now empty and filled with weeds growing through large cracks and, worse, inhabited by rats.

     Joe is next confronted by a majordomo who resembles the strange Dr. Crespi of John Auer’s 1936 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” called The Strange Dr. Crespi.  And rightly so since Wilder’s audiences easily recognize the servant as the star of Auer’s horror film, Erich von Stroheim, now dolled up as a sinister occupant of a decrepit mansion that sort of resembles Dr. Crespi’s expressionistic haunted house.  This servant demands to know what took Joe so long in getting to the mansion, and Joe tries to explain but the odd majordomo refuses to listen and beckons him inside where Joe is confronted by the mistress of the mansion, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), whom Joe recognizes as an aging diva of the silent screen.  From Norma, Joe learns that he has been mistaken for an undertaker summoned to care for a deceased lying under a blanket.  Joe is sympathetic but becomes discomfited when he discovers that the deceased under the blanket is actually a dead chimpanzee.

    This, then, is the point of Sunset Boulevard.  From this point on things are not what they seem, and Wilder stretches and manipulates contrasts and reversals to, as several critics have noted, criticize the casual vulgarity of the present and the ostentatious poses of the past.  Wilder does this primarily by contrasting fantasy with reality and nowhere has he achieved this better than in his casting.  In addition to casting those “artifacts” of the silent screen already mentioned—H. B. Warner, Buster Keaton, etc., whom Joe describes as Norma’s “wax figures”—Wilder cast Gloria Swanson in the lead as Norma, which utterly manifested his duality of fantasy and reality.  She is at once a relic of the past—Wilder even includes a clip from one of Swanson’s most successful films, Queen Kelly, ironically directed by von Stroheim—and yet demonstrates that she is a consummate, versatile and accomplished actress—doing precisely what Norma is attempting to do in Wilder’s story.  So poignant is this casting that, as many have observed, her visit to the Paramount studio where she is recognized by employees is touching because it very well could have been real.

     The same can be said for the casting of Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling (played by John Wengraf in the Lux version).  As a matter of fact, at the time of the film Wilder was reproved by the Hollywood establishment for his choice of von Stroheim because the character of Max was true to von Stroheim’s own professional ruin.  Indeed, von Stroheim had been one of the silent era’s top talents both in front of the camera and behind it.  He was known by audiences as “the man you love to hate” for his villainous portrayals of Prussian generals and aristocrats, and also known by the same appellation by the cast and crews of his own films for his dictatorial devotion to realism (it was said that von Stroheim would shut down production for hours until a wardrobe consultant could find the proper vintage button to sew on a vintage costume).  After making several financially failed if artistically successful films, “the Von” was exiled to the nether regions of Hollywood.  Although finding acceptance in Europe, his work in Hollywood was relegated to that of an actor or dialogue writer for various low-budget films including the horror films The Devil Doll (1936), The Lady and the Monster (1944), The Great Flammarion (1945), and The Mask of Dijon (1946).

     If von Stroheim took umbrage to his casting as Max he never let on and gave a masterful performance as Max.  Indeed, in yet another duality here Max is presented against Norma.  If Norma is the jaded romantic then Max is the jaded realist.  He has seen and lived the manipulative world of Hollywood to such a degree that nothing in the scheming before him seems to bother him.  Max only comes alive at the end when he channels the great DeMille and “directs” Norma for the cameras.  But these are newsreel cameras—cameras that supposedly capture reality.  But a camera is a camera; film is film.  Is it Norma or Salome descending those stairs for one final close up?